The Dating Game

This post is about how scientists date objects, and the hidden assumptions they use to get the answers they want.

It happens when I tell people the Bible is true.  I tell them “deep time” – millions and billions of years — is bad science and horrible theology.  They look at me with a combined look of incredibility and pity, and these are my friends generally.  They ask – “what about carbon dating?”

Let’s look at carbon dating, and the games scientists play to get the answers they want.

Here’s an example.  You walk into a room, and a five-gallon pot is sitting under a dripping faucet.  There are three gallons of water in the pot.  You know, or you measure, that the water is dripping into the pot at rate of one gallon an hour.  How long has the water been dripping?

Most people would quickly say three hours.  They would divide the amount of water in the pot (three gallons) by the current rate of flow (one gallon per hour).  And, perhaps without realizing it, they just made three assumptions.

The first assumption is that there was no water in the pot to start with.  But since you just walked into the room, you don’t know whether that’s true.  The second assumption is that no water has been added to the pot or taken out – the pot doesn’t leak.  Again, since you just walked into the room, you don’t know whether that’s true.  The third assumption is that the water has been dripping at a constant speed.  But, again, you don’t know!

Before we go to carbon dating, notice one simple but startling fact.  You can get any answer you want simply by changing the assumptions.  If I told you the correct answer is one hour you might say – “no problem, there must have been two gallons in the pot when the water started dripping.”  If I told you the answer was ten hours you might think the pot had a leak, or that perhaps the water was dripping at a slower rate in the past.  You can play with these three assumptions and get any answer you want!

Carbon dating is a little trickier, because you’re dealing with exponential decay, but it’s fundamentally the same game.  A normal carbon atom has six protons and six neutrons in the nucleus.  A very small percentage of carbons atoms – about one in a trillion (that’s one in a million million) have an extra two neutrons.  Carbon-14 is mostly formed when high energy particles from outer space (called cosmic rays) strike nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere.  It’s radioactive, and it decays over time into normal carbon.  Every 5,700 years or so one-half of the carbon-14 decays into normal carbon.  After 11,400 years (two half-lives) only one-quarter of the original carbon-14 will be present, and so on.  After 57,000 years (ten half-lives) only one-thousandth of the original carbon-14 is left, and current instruments cannot detect this low a concentration.  To be clear, any object older than 60,000 years should have no measurable amount of carbon-14.

Carbon dating is used to estimate the age of organic matter.  Plants absorb carbon-14, and living plants today have the same proportion of carbon-14 as today’s atmosphere – again, about one carbon atom in a trillion.  When the plant dies it stops absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, and the carbon-14 already present begins to decay.  Animals eat plants and thus ingest carbon-14.  When an animal or person dies they also stop absorbing carbon-14.

There is a place in central Mexico where animal remains have been found that some claim, using carbon dating, are 33,000 years old.  That’s close to six half-lives of carbon-14.  They got that date by measuring the amount of carbon-14 present in those remains, comparing it to the amount of carbon-14 in living organisms today, and concluding that the carbon-14 in the remains had been divided in half about six times.

Notice a key assumption – it was assumed that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere when these animals lived was the same as the amount today.

But, again, carbon-14 is mostly formed in the upper atmosphere (9 to 15 miles up) when high-energy particles strike nitrogen atoms.  The earth’s magnetic field repels high-energy particles.  The earth’s magnetic field was much stronger in the past – our magnetic field is decaying with a half-life of only 1500 or 1600 years.  Five thousand years ago, just a few hundred years after the great Flood of Noah, it was about eight times stronger!  There was much less carbon-14 in the atmosphere thousands of years ago!  That’s why there is much less carbon-14 in the animal remains found in central Mexico and around the world.  That’s one reason they come up with these false dates of tens of thousands of years.

Scientists associated with the Institute for Creation Research did an eight-year research project on Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth.  You can learn more here.  The bottom line is that, for many scientific reasons, the formulas used in carbon dating and other methods of radiometric dating are based on false assumptions.

Remember I noted that there should be no measurable amount of carbon-14 in any object older than about 57,000 years – ten half-lives?  Well – and brace yourself for this – carbon-14 is present in all fossils, including fossils supposedly hundreds of millions of years old.  Carbon-14 is present in oil and coal.  Carbon-14 is found in all diamonds, diamonds that were supposedly formed billions of years ago.  Secular scientists ignore these facts; some say these samples were contaminated.  But diamonds are difficult to contaminate, and the contamination excuse fails for other reasons.

So if someone believes carbon dating proves the Bible is wrong, please tell them that those calculations are based on the false assumption that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere thousands of years ago was the same as it is today.  And please challenge them to explain why fossils supposedly hundreds of millions of years old contain measurable amounts of carbon-14.

Thanks for reading.  Please share the good news that modern science confirms the truth of the Bible.  Friends don’t let friends be atheists.

Doug Ell